Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Top 5 Greatest Rock and Roll Sitcom Episodes

Ever since April 10, 1957 – the day that Ricky Nelson picked up his guitar to sing “I’m Walking” on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet – rock and roll has been a fixture on the sitcom screen. But what have been the finest, most rockin’ episodes? After much extensive research and analysis, I have boiled them down to the top five.

As always, I had to set some guidelines. Many shows skirted fees and copyrights by creating fictionalized stars (such as teenage heartthrob Johnny Poke on The Beverly Hillbillies or Bobby Fleet and His Band with a Beat on The Andy Griffith Show). I also avoided guest shots on animated shows, since the rock stars didn’t actually appear. Hence no Beau Brummels (sorry, I mean the Beau Brummelstones) on The Flintstones and no Aerosmith (or Stones, Ramones, or ex-Beatles) on The Simpsons. Finally, I also kept a fairly strict definition of rock and roll (hence no B.B. King on Sandford and Son, since King’s more blues than rock) as well as a fairly strict definition of sitcom (hence no Alice Cooper on The Muppet Show, since that was essentially structured as a variety show with a featured guest host).

As for criteria, I just tried to meet the spirit (no pun intended, as you will see) of my list’s honorable mention, the Standells 1965 appearance on The Munsters, in which the group plays a ramshackle cover of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” at the Munsters’ beatnik party. While Herman declares the band almost as good as Kate Smith, little Eddie marvels at the rock and roll music.

Eddie: “Grampa, doesn’t that send you out of this world?”

Grampa: “So what, I’ve been there before.”

We should all be so lucky.

5. Spencer Davis, Richie Havens, Robby Krieger, Mark Lindsay, Peter Noone, and John Sebastian on Married…With Children, “Rock of Ages,” November 15, 1992.

“Hope I die before I get old” goes the eternal rock and roll rallying cry, but in the decades following Woodstock, it became increasingly clear that not everyone would get off that easy. Married…With Children, which centered around the rare baby boomer-era parents who never wallowed in their era’s nostalgia (as opposed to shows as diverse as Family Ties, ALF, Head of the Class, and The Fresh Prince of Bell-Air, all of which had at least one wistful boomer-driven hippie episode that usually consisted of Generation X stumbling upon some ’60s relics, learning about the era, and then using a good ol’ fashioned sit-in to save whatever thing was about to be demolished by greedy money-hungry yuppies); in hindsight, perhaps the Bundys were the living embodiment of the Age of Aquarius’ failures, but I digress. In this episode, the Bundys fake being a rock and roll band so that they can get on a first class flight with other rock and roll stars. Granted, some of these are stars in the loosest sense (would’ve Al Bundy really been able to recognize the Doors’ keyboardist at the drop of a hat?), but that’s the joke and everybody is gamely in on it. It’s all worth it to see their “We Are the World”-mocking finale “Old Aid” (sample lyric: “We are the old/We have arthritis/Our gums are weak/From gingivitis”) and, of course, Al Bundy doing that amazing sandwich solo.

4. Davy Jones on The Brady Bunch, “Getting Davy Jones,” December 10, 1971.

For kids like myself watching reruns of The Brady Bunch after school, the various dimensions of time and space converge in ways that create their own pockets of reality. Take, for instance, this classic episode in which Marsha claims she can get Davy Jones to perform at the prom before she even knows how to get in touch with him. Now, as a huge fan of the Monkees (their 20th anniversary reruns in ’86 were the only MTV I was allowed to watch), I just took for granted that Davy was a superstar, as famous and fantastic as Marsha treated him in the episode. Little did I know that by the time this episode aired in 1971, The Monkees had been off the air for almost three years, and the Monkees – which was reduced to a duo after Peter and Mike left the band in 1968 and 1969, respectively – had ceased to exist in any form for over a year, and its members, including heartthrob Davy Jones, were now lingering on the brink of obscurity. Enter Marsha Brady. The Brady Bunch had always depicted a world in which fantasy trumped reality; hence, Davy Jones could be treated like the biggest star in the world and make Marsha Brady’s world by kissing her on the cheek. I can’t decide which is better – Marsha’s spying siblings mocking them by pretending to kiss each other (oddly foreshadowing the relationships they would have in real life amongst each other) or Davy Jones rehashing the whole thing in The Brady Bunch Movie in 1995, while Marsha once again swoons…along with the adult chaperones.

3. The Doobie Brothers on What’s Happening!!, “Doobie or Not Doobie, Part II,” February 4, 1978.

There are rock and roll television episodes where a group essentially shows up to play a song. And then there are episodes where a group hangs out and gets to do some awkward banter and/or relevant public service announcements (usually something about how school is good or drugs are bad), with little or no stage time shown in the program. And then there’s this, in which the Doobie Brothers pull off the rock and roll sitcom trifecta on What’s Happening!!, spending ample time performing, bantering, and teaching the gang an important moral lesson. The latter is what drives the episode, as Raj, Rerun, and Dwayne get conned into bootlegging the Doobies’ homecoming show at their high school, where the band also used to attend. The band closes with “Takin’ It to the Streets,” Rerun begins to jump up and down, and the rest is history. The 1978 “portable” tape recorder Rerun has been hiding in his overcoat falls out as everyone in the auditorium somehow falls instantly silent and the band points at him in disbelief. Cut to the backroom, where the Doobies are leveling with the What’s Happening!! gang about what a serious offense bootlegging is. Well, it just so happens the bootlegger who set the guys up is someone who has bootlegged the band before. And it just so happens that the guys are planning to meet him at the soda shop. And it also just so happens that the Doobie Brothers have apparently nothing else to do after a show than wait in the various doorways of said soda shop (thankfully, there are about 37 members in this band) and orchestrate a small sting operation to catch the crook. And the final gag? When they play back the tape, all that can be heard is Rerun eating popcorn! Well, at least that’s better than having to listen to Michael McDonald’s vocals.

2. The Beach Boys on Full House, “Beach Boy Bingo,” November 18, 1988.

I know what you’re thinking – which time that the Beach Boys were on Full House? (I mean, how cool did you feel when you noticed that John “Uncle Jesse” Stamos could be seen playing percussion in the background of their comeback video, “Kokomo”?) Well, even though the Beach Boys appeared on the show several times (albeit in different conglomerations), this is likely the episode you are thinking of; there’s just so much that happens, it seems like it must have been more. The plot is as simple as can be – DJ wins tickets to see the Beach Boys but can’t decide who to take as her plus one – but it yields countless memorable moments: Danny trying to sing the overlapping parts of “Good Vibrations” with an acoustic guitar on his morning talk show, the Beach Boys showing up at the Tanners’ house and shaking each other’s hands when Joey exclaims, “Wow! You’re Al, you’re Bruce, you’re Brian, you’re Carl, you’re Mike!,” the “Kokomo” jam session in the living room where Joey almost gets Jesse to give the band their demo just before Mike Love thanks them for not bugging them to hear a song they’ve written, and of course, the finale, later that night, where the Beach Boys call their new friends, the Tanner family, onstage to sing “Barbara-Ann” with them while Joey slyly slips the demo tape into Mike Love’s shirt pocket. Wow, so much happens I forgot to resolve the plot that started it all [spoiler alert!]: The Beach Boys let DJ take the entire family to the concert! But then again, such minor details like plotlines and character development take the backseat when you can watch Brian Wilson do his equivalent of hamming it up – DJ: “It’s a long story.” Brian: “They never start the show without us!” Classic rock meets classic television with six Tanners, five Beach Boys, four songs, three commercial breaks, two tickets, and one vegetarian pizza? You got it, dude.

1. Stevie Wonder on The Cosby Show, “A Touch of Wonder,” February 20, 1986.

This is not just the greatest rock and roll sitcom episode, it’s one of the best sitcom episodes, period, as well as the best use of a musical guest star ever, outside of Sammy Davis, Jr. popping up at Archie Bunker’s house in All in the Family. Again, the plotline is rudimentary – Denise’s car collides with Stevie’s limo, prompting Stevie to invite the family to a recording session – but the result is timeless. Watching it again, I am struck by what a great episode of The Cosby Show this is, with many great elements that don’t directly involve Stevie at all: Cliff’s interplay with Rudy when she attempts to fix the grandfather clock (it ends with a “zerbert”), Cliff’s shoddy re-gluing of Claire’s mug to look like one of the kids broke it, Theo answering the phone with the classic “Huxtable residence” twice…the list goes on and on. But of course, it’s the Huxtables’ visit to Stevie’s studio that makes this episode go from great to classic. For a rare time, a rock and roller is at ease with himself and the cast, and is genuinely funny without sounding completely awkward. We also get a look at Stevie Wonder in the recording studio, circa 1986, which would be a treat for any major musician, but is even more so because it gives us an idea of how Stevie records despite his blindness. Watching him with all of those then-state-of-the-art computers didn’t make me wonder what he’s using now, but rather how he made Innervisions over a decade earlier. The studio time is then taken up by two parts: In the first, Stevie interacts with the kids to record samples for his new album (which prompts one of the greatest television lines ever, when Stevie asks Theo what he would say at a party: “Jammin’ on the one!”), and in the second, Stevie sings a duet with Claire (who can actually sing) on “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” his then-recent number one hit. Stevie’s playful joy combined with Claire’s realistic performance (initially reserved and caught off-guard, but slowly warming up in both feeling and vocal) combine into a great moment, and by the time the rest of the kids jump in to sing and clap along with the refrain, you can’t help but wish that this was something that could happen to you and your family. Need to feel a bit better about the world? Try jammin’ on this one.

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